Everyone knows the American public has a low opinion of politicians. What's sometimes overlooked is why. And the biggest reason is the politicians themselves - not what they do, necessarily, but what they say about each other.
Take, for example, Tom Barrett, the Democratic nominee for Wisconsin governor. This is what he says about his Republican rival, in TV ads: "Scott Walker: Can't trust him with our money; can't trust him to tell the truth."
Probably can't trust him around little old ladies either. He might accost them on the sidewalk to steal their marble rye.
The Walker camp, meanwhile, has segued effortlessly from alleging that primary opponent "Mark Neumann is lying again!" to making the same assertion about Barrett.
What rascals these two men are! It's a wonder they're allowed to walk free among us, much less run for the state's highest office.
This is, of course, how politics is often played - constant friction over accusations, traded back and forth. There's just one small problem with this approach, and, ironically enough, it's something that creates a common bond between the two contenders: They're lying.
They're lying about how terrible they regard the other to be. They're lying when they heap blame on each other for vast problems they know have multiple causes. And they're lying about the claims they make about themselves.
In truth, neither Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett nor Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is a confident visionary with a plan to solve all of the state's woes. And neither is a bumbling incompetent of low moral character.
Both, rather, are career politicians who've mostly played it safe and can claim only modest achievements. Neither is likely to fundamentally revamp state government or find painless solutions to endemic problems, as they promise.
So the bad news is they're lying. The good news is they've been caught on many occasions, and by many different observers.
Can't stop the madness
In a statewide race where spending is expected to top $50 million, it would be difficult for the candidates to completely avoid negative campaigning, or even shameless appeals to the public's presumed ignorance and gullibility.
But Tom Barrett, 56, and Scott Walker, who'll turn 43 on Election Day, Nov. 2, seem not to be trying.
Awhile back, The Capital Times ran an editorial titled "Two Honorable Men: Barrett and Walker." It asserted that both men deserve to be counted among "the nicest people in Wisconsin politics," with long records of public service.
The editorial went on to say: "[I]f Barrett or Walker tries to suggest that the other guy is somehow dishonorable or to claim that his opponent would destroy the state, don't take him seriously."
Just how much honorable-guy cred do Tom Barrett and Scott Walker deserve when the public needs to be warned not to trust them?
Political campaigns have always been hard fought and contentious, and candidates today may be no less truthful than those in the past. Indeed, one of the actual changes in the political landscape is the plethora of resources, like factcheck.org, Politifact and We the People's Fact Finder, that have emerged in recent years to put campaign claims to the truth test.
It's now easier than ever to catch candidates' fibbing. Unfortunately, this has not made them more honest.
Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the UW-Madison, sees the attacks in the governor's race as the new normal. Given the presumed advantage of Republicans in the midterm elections, "Barrett has to come up with some good reasons why voters don't want Walker." And Walker feels the need to respond in kind.
"It's been a near-consensus since the Clinton election in 1992 that letting an attack go unanswered is a mistake," says Franklin. Furthermore, Walker's strategy hinges on making Barrett out to be something he's not - i.e., an exact replica of Gov. Jim Doyle - and embracing the anti-insider message now in vogue among Republicans.
"When it comes down to two candidates in a general election," says Franklin, "negative attacks may suppress voter turnout, but otherwise, there is no mechanism to stop the madness."
Lost in the Din
During the first of three scheduled debates, on Sept. 25, both candidates took shots at each other, Barrett more than Walker, while making lofty claims about themselves.
"Our state needs straight talk," said Barrett, more than once. "We need some honest plans." Walker, for his part, made constant references to his history of "taking on the political machine."
Of course, straight talk is the last thing a person should expect from a politician seeking elected office. And people who run for governor don't take on political machines, they build and use them.
Both candidates conjured up bogeymen to inveigh against. Barrett bashed the "Cadillac health-care system" supposedly enjoyed by state prison inmates. Walker contended that the best way to help farmers is "by cutting back on the frivolous lawsuits that so many farmers have to deal with." (Homework assignment: Go to any farmers' market and ask the sellers how big a problem this is.)
Barrett tried to bust Walker's chops over his constant references to Doyle, who as a matter of fact is not on the ballot. Barrett noted that while he personally ran against Doyle eight years ago, Walker "dropped out because the party bosses told you to."
Walker struck back, saying, "Even though the mayor claims he's not Jim Doyle, every one of the major policies he's running on are the same things Jim Doyle has taken us down the wrong path on." He didn't name the things.
Barrett, in his closing remarks, blasted Walker: "It's an issue of trust. Sometimes I think he has an expiration date on his promises. We can't have leadership like that. And we can't have leadership that can't manage."
Make no mistake: There are genuine and substantial differences between the two candidates. Barrett is pro-choice; Walker is "100% pro-life" and even opposes a law that requires the state's public schools to teach contraception.
Walker opposes federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research; Barrett supports it, warning of lost jobs in Wisconsin if his opponent imposes new controls.
Like most Democrats, Barrett supports initiatives to expand health-care access, including the reform bill passed by Congress earlier this year and BadgerCare Plus, a state program that offers coverage to low-income adults without children. Walker has pledged to pare back BadgerCare Plus and authorize the attorney general to join a legal challenge of "ObamaCare."
Walker wants to repeal $1.8 billion in tax hikes enacted under Doyle, including a 1% bump on family incomes above $300,000 a year. Barrett says this would drive the state's already daunting $2.7 billion budget deficit to a whole new crisis level.
But these distinctions in policy are all but lost in the din of the campaign and especially the ads run by the candidates and their supporters. Here the differences are more stark - not between this way or that, but between good and evil, right and wrong.
Lies about each other
The will to distort runs deep in both campaigns.
Take Walker's accusation that Barrett voted for "the largest tax increase in history." In fact, the 1993 federal tax hike Barrett voted for as a member of Congress was actually the ninth highest, well behind the hike passed in 1982 under President Ronald Reagan. It's only the largest in terms of raw dollars, unadjusted for inflation, which hardly seems fair.
Moreover, as a We the People fact check noted, this tax hike mostly increased the tax burden on the very wealthy, while reducing the burden for low-income families.
Barrett, in turn, claims Walker saddled Milwaukee County taxpayers with $400 million in pension-fund debt, which Barrett contrasts to his own much more competent handling of the city of Milwaukee's pension fund shortfall.
But, as We the People noted, Barrett's claim to have filled the city's gap with "smart cuts" overlooks that he also raised the tax levy by 4%. And while Milwaukee County under Walker did issue $400 million in pension obligation bonds, this money will be reinvested and hopefully yield a higher return. It's risky, but if the economy improves it could prove to be smart.
Not to be outdone, Walker brands Barrett "Wisconsin's #1 polluter," responsible for dumping 8.2 billion gallons of sewage into Lake Michigan, including a big spill this July. (Elsewhere, ironically, Walker pegs Barrett as a jobs-killing environmental extremist.) An investigation by Politifact Wisconsin, a collaborative effort by a national group and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to investigate campaign claims, deemed this allegation "barely true."
As a mayoral candidate in 2004, Barrett did sharply criticize the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, saying it "must clean up its act." And the spills that prompted this criticism have continued, to where the state of Michigan is complaining about gunk on its shores.
"Tom Barrett's broken promises to the people of Wisconsin are now bleeding over to our neighbors," exclaims Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes. "Just like Jim Doyle, we can't trust Tom Barrett to do what he says he will." (Extra demerit points for the dangling modifier.)
But Politifact notes that Barrett plays no direct role in running the sewerage district, and was not involved in its decision this July to release overflows (mostly rainwater) into Lake Michigan.
It's true Barrett appoints a majority of the sewerage district's board members, and thus has some influence. But to accommodate as much rain as Milwaukee received in July without overflows, said Politifact, the district would need to quadruple its capacity, at an estimated cost of $6 billion. Is notorious tightwad Walker (who's railed against the sewerage district for seeking a 4.4% property-tax hike) willing to foot this bill?
But Barrett has forfeited his right to sympathy by taking the time-honored campaign tradition of using newspaper headlines to attack an opponent to creative new heights. In a recent TV ad, his campaign makes a number of negative claims about Walker, displaying articles from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as proof.
In two of the three instances, the articles do not match the accusation. In all three instances, the campaign distorts the presentation of the articles, either by adding pictures of Walker that didn't actually appear or falsely making it look as though the articles were front-page news.
For instance, when the narrator talks about how Walker badly mismanaged Milwaukee County, the headline "Millions down the drain" flashes on the screen, accompanied by a photo of Walker. That article was actually about the ongoing mismanagement of Wisconsin Shares, a state childcare program that Walker has nothing to do with.
Both Walker and the Journal Sentinel cried foul, and Politifact Wisconsin gave the ad its lowest rating for truthiness, "Pants on Fire."
Fibbing to voters
Besides making unfair and often untrue statements about each other, both candidates for governor have stretched if not trampled the truth in how they've framed issues.
Consider Walker's vehement opposition to the federal government's decision to spend more than $800 million on a high-speed rail line that would link Madison to Milwaukee and points beyond. He tells voters, "I'd rather take that money and fix Wisconsin's crumbling roads and bridges."
As Walker knows, that's not likely an option. If Wisconsin refuses this money, it would almost certainly go instead to some other state, to build rail lines there. Walker claims otherwise, but, as Politifact noted, a whole lot of things would have to fall into place for this to pan out.
Also suspect is Walker's reason for not wanting the train. He says the state's hard-working taxpayers would have to spend at least $7.5 million and perhaps as much as $10 million a year to keep the trains running. (Other accounts place the actual total as low as $520,000 a year.) The state's transportation budget is currently $3 billion a year, of which $10 million is a third of one percent.
How much of a tax reduction would derailing the train bring - especially since walking away at this point would mean breaking signed contracts, losing the state's $100 million investment in the project, and probably repaying about $300 million in federal money already spent?
Barrett, meanwhile, is pandering to popular prejudice against prison inmates by promising to end the "Cadillac health care" services.
The campaign claims it can shave up to $14 million a year in medical services to prisoners - far less than a drop in the state's $31 billion budget bucket - but does not specify what services would be cut (and did not respond to a request for more information). All evidence suggests the health care provided state prison inmates (at a total cost of just $57.5 million this year, an average of $2,600 per inmate) does not include a lot of frills like aromatherapy and acupuncture.
For instance, a 2009 state audit found that only four of the state's adult institutions met nationally recommended staffing ratios for prison psychologists. And in August, a settlement was reached between the state and American Civil Liberties Union requiring improvements in health care at Taycheedah, the state's largest women's prison.
News reports said the prison had only a part-time physician for its 700 inmates; the settlement requires it to have one full-time doc. How much opportunity does that leave Barrett to chip away at Cadillac care?
On top of it all, the candidates are stretching the truth about themselves. Here's Scott Walker from a TV ad about his eight-year stint as Milwaukee County executive (following nearly nine years in the state Legislature): "We took back our government, turned deficits into a surplus, held the line on taxes, and made government smaller - things Gov. Doyle didn't do and Tom Barrett won't do."
Walker held the line on taxes in theory but not in practice. The County Board hiked the tax levy every year - which some say saved Milwaukee County from fiscal Armageddon or the elimination of basic public services.
The county did end 2009 with an $8.3 million surplus, but this was due to a $12 million health-care surplus that a consultant for the county called "a fluke." The county will end 2010 with at least a $6.6 million budget deficit, and it faces a projected deficit of $44.9 million for 2011.
Barrett makes similarly empty boasts about his success as a crimefighter. His website proclaimed: "Under Tom Barrett's leadership, violent crime in Milwaukee has decreased by over 20% - to its lowest levels in more than 20 years."
Politifact Wisconsin refuted this claim, saying: "When you compare 2004, the year Barrett took office, with last year, reported violent crime incidents were 36% higher in 2009 than 2004." Moreover, in 2006, Barrett's second full year in office, violent crime surged to its highest level since 1990, making Milwaukee one of the nation's leaders in this dubious category.
The 20% drop actually occurred between 2007 and 2009, not Barrett's entire tenure. His campaign told Politifact it picked this range because these figures reflect the city's experience under Police Chief Edwin Flynn, who took over in 2008 with Barrett's strong support.
Politifact threw a flag on Barrett, who revised what appears on his website. It now says "Violent crime in Milwaukee has decreased by 20% over the past two years, and homicides are at the lowest levels in more than 20 years."
Score one for the truth seekers!
A brave new state?
Barrett's heroism intervening in a domestic altercation at the State Fair in August 2009, which left him badly injured and perhaps permanently disabled, has deservedly won widespread praise. But it's important to remember that throwing caution to the wind to do the right thing has not exactly been a hallmark of his political career, which includes nearly two decades in the state Legislature and Congress before being elected mayor of Milwaukee in 2004.
A few days before the State Fair assault, according to a report in Milwaukee Magazine, Barrett was "cornered" by a reporter into saying he agreed with Gov. Jim Doyle's call for the mayor of Milwaukee to have more control over the city's schools. Then, early on the day of the assault, Barrett learned that Doyle was not running for reelection, causing Barrett to doubt whether he should have committed to pursuing this change, given that it was backed not by a governor but a lame-duck governor.
"Did we flunk Politics 101?" Barrett reportedly fretted to his chief of staff. Maybe. But certainly it was not a moment worthy of Profiles in Courage.
And Walker, as writer Roger Bybee pointed out in Isthmus ("Scott Walker's Challenge," 11/20/09), is in the untenable position of having built a political career by railing against government - which is, after all, the arena in which politics is played. As Bybee put it, "How can a person who sees government as a main part of the problem make it an integral part of the solution?"
The truth is, he can't. He can only pretend to be a bold outsider to the "political machine." It's a cynical ploy, and fundamentally dishonest.
Whoever wins on Nov. 2 will have to contend with expectations he can't meet and promises he can't keep. And knowing that, at least on occasion, he reached the state's highest office by taking the lowest roads.
The candidates and their supporters on each other
"If you believe that the past eight years of Jim Doyle's policies have made us better; if you think the economy today is better than it was eight years ago; then you should vote for Tom Barrett - because Tom Barrett represents a third term of Jim Doyle's policies."
- Scott Walker, primary night victory speech, 9/14/10
"Walker's reckless mismanagement is costing taxpayers across Wisconsin millions of dollars, and his shameless political doubletalk shows he is a guy we just can't trust."
- Tom Barrett, press release, 8/11/10
"Tom Barrett has a documented record of spending increases as mayor, in the Legislature, and in Congress. To believe Tom Barrett is suddenly ready to change his spending ways is to swallow a career's worth of empty calories."
- Republican Party of Wisconsin chair Reince Priebus, press release, 6/7/10
"With his outrageous lies last night, Wisconsin saw that you can't trust Scott Walker to care about any job but his own."
- Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Mike Tate, press release, 9/25/10 [What, did none of these guys learn about dangling modifiers in school?]
"Wisconsin voters have a choice: A candidate like Scott Walker who knows the struggles of Wisconsin taxpayers or a politician like Tom Barrett who will say and do anything to get elected."
- Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes, press release, 9/30/10
"Scott Walker, he'll say anything to try and get elected."
- Barrett campaign ad, launched Aug. 6